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Kyrgyz president makes refugees feel at home

News Stories, 2 September 2002

© UNHCR
Kyrgyzstan's President Askar Akaev congratulates a Tajik refugee on receiving her Kyrgyz passport and citizenship.

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan, September 2 (UNHCR) In an important boost to Kyrgyzstan's naturalisation process, President Askar Akaev recently presided over a ceremony to distribute passports to 69 long-time Tajik refugees.

Last Friday's event saw refugees living in the Chui Valley near Bishkek receive passports, and hence Kyrgyz citizenship, personally from the President in a colourful ceremony that ended in a fanfare of national music and song.

In his speech welcoming the refugees as new Kyrgyz citizens, President Akaev praised the work of UNHCR and thanked the agency for finding durable solutions for refugees in Kyrgyzstan. He was joined at the ceremony by refugees and their families, as well as the country's State Secretary, Vice-Prime Minister, the Ministers of Interior and Foreign Affairs, and several parliamentarians.

Across Kyrgyzstan, a total of 89 Tajik refugee men and women were granted citizenship last Friday following a presidential decree. The actual number of people who obtained Kyrgyz nationality was much higher, as children obtain citizenship through their parents. Thus the total number of new Kyrgyz may be several hundred persons.

The recently-naturalised refugees have been living in Kyrgyzstan for more than eight years. All were predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz who fled Tajikistan during the five-year civil war that erupted following the country's independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.

James Lynch, who heads UNHCR's liaison office in the Kyrgyz capital, said that to date more than 1,500 Tajik refugees have been naturalised, with most of them becoming citizens of the Central Asian state in the last year.

Lynch believes the President's personal interest in naturalising the Tajik refugees, many of whom have prospered as farmers, will help the remaining 6,000 Tajiks end the limbo of refugee life and become Kyrgyz citizens soon, if they wish.

"It shows all levels of government that he wants it to happen," said UNHCR's Lynch of the significance of President Akaev's presence on Friday to the momentum behind naturalising refugees.

Despite the option of assuming Kyrgyz nationality, some 7,000 mainly ethnic Kyrgyz refugees have returned home since the civil war ended in Tajikistan, with 2,000 people having gone back in the last two years.

Those people naturalised to date were considered legally stateless as they had fled Tajikistan before that state promulgated its constitution in late 1994. To help refugees who fled Tajikistan later and who wish to become Kyrgyz nationals, Lynch said his office is gathering all the necessary paperwork so that they will obtain Kyrgyz nationality upon application, without having to renounce their Tajik citizenship first and then having to wait in interim statelessness. This parallel procedure follows a May 2002 accord signed by the Kyrgyz and Tajik Foreign Ministers in St. Petersburg.

Throughout Central Asia, UNHCR has been working for years to resolve the pressing matter of statelessness, which affects more than 230,000 people across the region. The leadership role being taken by President Akaev is an important symbol, and one that the refugee agency hopes will not be missed by other Central Asian presidents.

"Kyrgyzstan is doing quite well. It has been an extremely positive relationship that we're trying to replicate elsewhere in Central Asia," said UNHCR Senior Legal Officer Carol Batchelor, who heads the agency's unit that works to resolve issues of statelessness worldwide and promotes accession to the 1954 Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness. The Conventions have been signed by 54 and 26 states respectively.

Batchelor said an important aspect of Kyrgyzstan's outlook in the 11 years since its independence has been the republic's willingness to re-examine legislation and look after the needs of its refugee population in a practical way, recognising that some people might want to stay to contribute to the country.

"Kyrgyzstan adopted a citizenship law when it first became independent, but it didn't leave it at that," she said. "It has taken the next step to review its existing citizenship law and is currently revising this law to incorporate provisions aimed at the reduction and avoidance of statelessness. We have been very pleased that the authorities have sought technical expertise from us in that regard."

"States don't always make the link between UNHCR and issues relating to citizenship. Through workshops and different capacity-building initiatives, we've been able to demonstrate that statelessness is a problem and also to negotiate some durable solutions," Batchelor said of UNHCR's work to advance the agency's mission to end statelessness in Kyrgyzstan and worldwide.

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At least 10 million people in the world today are stateless. They are told that they don't belong anywhere. They are denied a nationality. And without one, they are denied their basic rights. From the moment they are born they are deprived of not only citizenship but, in many cases, even documentation of their birth. Many struggle throughout their lives with limited or no access to education, health care, employment, freedom of movement or sense of security. Many are unable to marry, while some people choose not to have children just to avoid passing on the stigma of statelessness. Even at the end of their lives, many stateless people are denied the dignity of a death certificate and proper burial.

The human impact of statelessness is tremendous. Generations and entire communities can be affected. But, with political will, statelessness is relatively easy to resolve. Thanks to government action, more than 4 million stateless people acquired a nationality between 2003 and 2013 or had their nationality confirmed. Between 2004 and 2014, twelve countries took steps to remove gender discrimination from their nationality laws - action that is vital to ensuring children are not left stateless if their fathers are stateless or unable to confer their nationality. Between 2011 and 2014, there were 42 accessions to the two statelessness conventions - indication of a growing consensus on the need to tackle statelessness. UNHCR's 10-year Campaign to End Statelessness seeks to give impetus to this. The campaign calls on states to take 10 actions that would bring a definitive end to this problem and the suffering it causes.

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Statelessness Around the World

Statelessness in Kyrgyzstan

Two decades after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, thousands of people in former Soviet republics like Kyrgyzstan are still facing problems with citizenship. UNHCR has identified more than 20,000 stateless people in the Central Asian nation. These people are not considered as nationals under the laws of any country. While many in principle fall under the Kyrgyz citizenship law, they have not been confirmed as nationals under the existing procedures.

Most of the stateless people in Kyrgyzstan have lived there for many years, have close family links in the country and are culturally and socially well-integrated. But because they lack citizenship documents, these folk are often unable to do the things that most people take for granted, including registering a marriage or the birth of a child, travelling within Kyrgyzstan and overseas, receiving pensions or social allowances or owning property. The stateless are more vulnerable to economic hardship, prone to higher unemployment and do not enjoy full access to education and medical services.

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However, statelessness in Kyrgyzstan is complex and thousands of people, mainly women and children, still face legal, administrative and financial hurdles when seeking to confirm or acquire citizenship. In 2009, with the encouragement of UNHCR, the government adopted a national action plan to prevent and reduce statelessness. In 2011, the refugee agency will help revise the plan and take concrete steps to implement it. A concerted effort by all stakeholders is needed so that statelessness does not become a lingering problem for future generations.

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In the Dominican Republic, UNHCR runs programmes that benefit refugees and asylum-seekers from Haiti as well as migrants and members of their family born in the country, some of whom could be stateless or at risk of becoming stateless. Many live in bateyes, which are destitute communities on once thriving sugar cane plantations. The inhabitants have been crossing over from Haiti for decades to work in the sugar trade.

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